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China to tighten NGO supervision

April 2015

Human rights and labour rights groups are to face a new challenge, finds Keith Crane reporting last month’s forum, “The new normal in China Communications and CSR”, organized by the British and Australian Chambers of Commerce and the China-Britain Business Council. 

New legislation being drafted by the Chinese government could force some sensitive non-government organisations to leave country.

That’s the warning from the country’s top charity adviser, Wang Liwei.

But he describes the move, expected to agreed this autumn, is a challenge rather than a threat.

Wang was speaking at a forum last month,organised by the British and Australian Chambers of Commerce and the China-Britain Business Council, “The new normal in China Communications and CSR.”

It aimed to help companies navigate the narrow path of the Government’s new normal strategy with falling off the policy cliff and was attended by more than 40 people representing firms and charities including Airbus, Rio Tinto, Harrow International School and Action Aid.

Much has changed in China since its new leadership, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, were handed the reins of power less than three years ago.

In that relatively short space of time (remember they have another seven years to go), the political and economic landscapes have been redrawn dramatically.

Most obviously has been the clampdown on corruption which has seen the downfall of many senior officials, including the former Head of Security, Zhou Yongkang and the former top aide to former President, Hu Jintao, Ling Jihua.

The latter’s downfall came when his son and passengers died in a fiery Ferrari crash on a Beijing ring road.

Despite state media attempts to cover up the story, many ordinary Chinese were left wondering how a government official could afford such a car?

Economically the growth in GDP is officially slowing to its lowest in decades – both to restructure the business base, but also now more importantly to tackle the country’s chronic pollution.

Such has been the scale of the changes, the government has even conjured the new term, as if to reassure people both inside and out the country, this is the “new normal”

It’s a phrase that appears in politicians’ speeches and across state media – stressing get used to it, this is what it’s like now. Now it’s moving into philanthropy, CSR and NGOs.

NGOs currently operate in a grey area, with little regulation Wang says, which makes the change necessary.

He said organisations could face a situation where officials from the Public Security Bureau, “knock on the door and ask you to explain what you’re doing?”

That he says a whole change in attitudes will be needed.

Wang says NGOs will need to think more carefully about issues such as staffing and management, and work in areas that meet government needs. “They will have to be much more under the thumb. Explaining their work to the government will be their challenge.

“The government will control what area you work in, under strict control. They will need to have a VPN, that’s vision, passion and be native, for example staff who speak Chinese and can think natively. If police come knocking on your door, you’ll need to respond in an understanding way. Attitude is everything.

“The government is afraid of a lot of NGOs hiding things, but if they have a good Chinese management and staff, and understand what China needs, they will be fine.”

I asked him afterwards if he could see some NGOs having to leave.

Yes, he said, such as those working in human and labour rights.

Clare Pearson, co-chair of the CSR forum described the new normal as having a Chinese boss, who is much more concerned about his staff welfare “because there is no welfare state.”

“You’ll be judged on how you treat your Chinese colleagues, not on how well you do your job.”

The forum was held just days after end of the government’s two parliamentary meetings which confirmed a new lower growth target of 7%, the lowest in decades.

But despite the slowdown in the economy, Chinese philanthropy is on the rise said Jean Sung, head of the Philanthropy Centre at JP Morgan.

“More and more of China’s wealthy want to do more to bridge the country’s wealth divide.”

She says China now has more than 200 dollar billionaires compared with 90 in India and 2.63 billion dollars in donations were made in 2013, double the figure of 2012.

“If we can continue this trajectory of the last 20 years, we could see happy faces.”

Asked how companies should approach deciding what to support, Sung says geography is the key.

“Many wealth divide issues are the same the world over such as pre and post-natal care, early years’ education, water and the environment.

“Talk to the local government where you are. It is crucial to address local needs and adopting a tripartite approach; private, public and social.

Many people could see the moves on NGOs as a further clampdown on freedoms in the country.

But Frances Fremont-Smith, Executive Director at the United Foundation for Children’s Health, says living and working in China is all about breaking down barriers.

One of the first Americans to work here 36 years ago, her marriage to a Chinese man was the ultimate hurdle. The first such marriage she said had to be agree by then president, Deng Xiaopeng. She approached it differently, asking her Chinese Foreign
Experts’ official if the man she fancied was good enough for her. Of course she was told, he has a degree, is educated and has a good job and the ideas embraced by her community.

“Forget China’s Great Wall and break down barriers to succeed. It’s living, working and thinking like Chinese that matters.” 

Asia | CSR

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